James Cagney was one of Warner Brothers’ biggest stars in the Golden era of Hollywood of the 1930-‘40s. He usually played a variety of tough guys and gangsters. In 1931, he made an impressive impact as young Chicago hood Tom Powers in William Wellman’s “The Public Enemy” and as federal agent Brick Davis in William Keighley’s “G-Men” (1935). In Michael Curtiz’s “Angels with Dirty Faces” (1938), he was Rocky Sullivan, a gangster trying to influence street kids. In Keighley’s “Each Dawn I Die” (1939), he’s Frank Ross, a tough investigative reporter who’s framed and sent to prison. And, in Raoul Walsh’s “The Roaring Twenties” (1939), he’s gangster Eddie Bartlett, a World War I vet trying to adapt to civilian life in the Prohibition era.
But a role Cagney will always be remembered for is the biography of the vaudeville song and dance legend, George M. Cohan in Michael Curtiz’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Here Cagney is no bad criminal or tough guy; instead, he gets to show off his grand singing voice and ever so nimble feet tapping away in many unforgettable dance numbers. This transformation would be as if Robert De Niro had decided 30 some years ago to suddenly do a musical where he sang and danced.
Famed film critic Pauline Kael recalls in her “5001 Nights at the Movies,” Cagney performance as Cohan “is so cocky and sure as a dancer that you feel yourself grinning with pleasure at his movements.”… “It’s quite possible that he had more electricity than Cohan himself had.” Cagney’s energy is so overflowing, he frequently delivers his dialogue at such a rapid-fire pace you can barely make out what he just said.
The Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph screenplay rather conventionally cover Cohan’s career from his earliest days in vaudeville as a member of his family’s musical group The Four Cohans, through his rougher independent years, to his successes on Broadway, then retirement.
The tale begins on a rain-soaked night. George has been invited to an Oval Office visit at the White House to receive the Congressional Gold Medal from President Franklin Roosevelt. Through his chatting with the President, flashbacks introduce us to the Cohan family: father, Jerry (Walter Huston), mother, Nellie (Rosemary DeCamp) and sister, Josie (Jeanne Cagney—James’ sister) and of course, his lovely wife, Mary (Joan Leslie). Later tales include George becoming theatrical producing partners with Sam Harris (Richard Whorf).
The show-stopping highlight of the film is Cohan’s “Yankee Doodle Boy” number from his Broadway hit “Little Johnny Jones”. Cohan sings and tap dances with a chorus of more than twenty women who are dressed in fluffy dresses, large hats and holding puffy umbrellas.
Expressive montage sequences highlighting George’s early Broadway struggles and successes, the outbreak of World War I, and family vacations punctuate several sections of the film. These were designed by young studio editor Don Siegel, a guy who later became the director of “Dirty Harry” and other fine action films.
“Yankee Doodle Dandy” features many other terrific Cohan original songs, like “Give My Regards to Broadway”, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and other patriotic tunes like “You’re a Grand Ole’ Flag,” and “Over There.”
What made Cagney really proud was that the real George Cohan lived to see an early screening of the film and approved of Cagney’s performance wholeheartedly.
According to biographer Andrew Bergman, Cagney loved the part as Cohan “because it was real American show business”. It remained his personal favorite role. It was also Cagney’s greatest box office hit and he won the Oscar as best actor of 1942. This was the first best actor award ever given to a musical performance, before Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. The film also received nominations for best picture, director, supporting actor (Huston), original story and editing. It also won the awards for sound and musical score.
Moreover, Bergman noted “Yankee Doodle Dandy” was a truly patriotic film that “exploited every patriotic nuance.” “Yankee Doodle Dandy” served as such a patriotic morale booster during the early months of United States involvement in World War II. It was used as an integral part of war bond drives to get Americans to contribute to the Allied cause, because an Allied victory was as far from certain, as was the ultimate outcome of the terrible world war.
So as this Independence Day approaches in 2019, I can think of no better way to fill yourself with patriotic zeal and pride than watching James Cagney in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”